This Ohio duo ain’t afraid of a little mud
Listening to The Black Keys’ latest album, Rubber Factory, on headphones hooked up to your laptop just doesn’t cut it. You need to be in your car or, even better, at home with your record player, alone. And it needs to be late at night, preferably an unbearably hot and sticky night. You will crank it up and immediately be pummeled by the echoing brusqueness of Pat Carney’s drumming. Then, the primal crackling of Dan Auerbach’s guitar will chime in. A couple of measures into it, you’ll be lulled under by Auerbach’s voice, letting loose like he’s channeling an old Memphis bluesman crooning on a lonely corner somewhere.
It will be hard for you to believe that this is the product of a couple of white boys out of Akron, Ohio, but it’s true. Their striking brand of raw blues infused with dirty, distorted instrumentals sounds like it’s been drudged up from the roiling waters of the Mississippi Delta.
Because of their penchant for analog recording and harking back to the root sounds of early rock and blues, the Keys get lavished with comparisons to the revered White Stripes, but none of the hype has gotten to Auerbach’s head. Sitting at home in Akron, he says he’s been waiting for my call for exactly four minutes. While some touring bands do interviews on cell phones in cacophonous cabs or restaurants, in (I suspect) an attempt to seem cool, today the other end of the line bounces back complete blissful silence.
One might’ve guessed, judging from the Keys’ coarse-grained recordings, that its members would be similarly unpretentious. Auerbach doesn’t put up any contrived aw-shucks front, but he does pare down his responses with the same bare-boned approach he uses to write lyrics.
“I just like raw music. I’ve always listened to a lot of Memphis blues,” he says. “I grew up listening to my dad’s records. Most kids rebel against their parents, but I just wanted to steal his record collection.”
Dad’s record collection probably includes Delta blues standards like Muddy Waters and Charlie Patton, but Auerbach says he especially admires Pat Hare and Willie Johnson, guitarists that played with the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. “Those guys were just playing like they had their guitar amps turned up all the way,” he says. “That’s the sound I love.”
In the tradition of those blues artists recording at Memphis’ Sun Studios 50 years back, the Keys set standard blues melodies to different lyrics on many of their tunes, especially on 2002’s The Big Come Up . But because Carney, who lived right around the corner from Auerbach growing up in Akron, didn’t have the same blues leanings at first, the Keys’ sound has taken on some distinct rock elements. “Pat was never really that into it [blues], he just likes to play drums,” says Auerbach. “There was never really thought involved though; we never set out to play any certain kind of music.”
So before anyone accuses the Black Keys of pilfering tunes from a bunch of old black blues practitioners, they should remember that this melding of styles is what accounts for the proliferation of blues and even the birth of rock itself, most famously with Elvis’ mixed bag of gospel and blues and rock.
Driven by Carney’s madly unorthodox drumming style, the craggy Rubber Factory feels like you’re being sonically dragged up and down an old washboard. With Auerbach’s six-string sprawling out lasciviously and reeling back in, tracks like the stellar “10 AM Automatic” wander into rock territory with unflagging confidence. On Carney’s drumming, Auerbach says, “I think it’s cool as hell. He’s never been taught how to play, so he sets his kit up in this weird way and other drummers will sit down and try to play it and they’re like, ‘What the hell?’”
Still, Rubber Factory doesn’t stray too far from Auerbach’s blues mentality, with covers of ex-con blues legend Robert Pete Williams’ headstrong classic, “Grown So Ugly” and even a twangy, sluggish version of the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle.”
After a while, “The Lengths” becomes the album’s surprise favorite. Soothing in the same way as a scruffy five o’clock shadow, Auerbach’s voice summons an army of goosebumps without even making an effort. Laughing at the suggestion that the Keys’ music is sexy, Auerbach says, “Generally we’re just music nerds, but we get as sexy and mysterious as music nerds can get, I guess.”
What: The Black Keys w/ Dixie Dirt